In Chicago strike, teachers draw a line on education reform (+video)

A key question in Chicago's first teacher strike in a generation is whether teachers will accept new rules on education reform issues ranging from teacher evaluations to seniority.

By , Staff writer

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    Striking teachers walk a picket line outside Benjamin Banneker Elementary School in Chicago on Monday, after they went on strike for the first on Sept. 10. Union and district officials failed to reach a contract agreement despite intense weekend negotiations.
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The image of 29,000 teachers and support staff striking, just a week into the school year, and nearly 400,000 students in the nation’s third-largest district left without classes is not one that any mayor wants.

As Chicago teachers go into the second day of strikes, both Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) and Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis have a lot at stake – and the outcome may well affect education-reform efforts far beyond the city of Chicago.

The pivotal points of disagreement in Chicago echo battles in many other districts as reforms around teacher evaluation, seniority, and teacher accountability are pushed through, but this is the first big district in which organized labor has taken such a major stand. 

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“It’s Old Labor meets New Democrat meets fiscal crisis. That’s the perfect storm,” says Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute. “Mayors are saying, 'Is Rahm going to prevail? If he does, it may mean I can push harder here.' Labor is saying, ‘Is Karen going to prevail? If she does … it means we can dig in our heels and resist the reform mantra more aggressively.' That’s what’s in the balance.”

The strike is Chicago’s first in 25 years, and the first in a major urban district since Detroit teachers went on strike in 2006. Notably, negotiators seem to have largely agreed on compensation – traditionally the biggest reason for a strike – with the city ultimately offering a 16 percent salary increase over the next four years, far more than it initially put on the table. Instead, the major sticking points have been around some of the most prevalent education-reform issues, particularly teacher evaluations and job security.

That – and the fact that negotiators were reportedly fairly close to an agreement over the weekend – caused Mayor Emanuel to suggest, in press conferences on both Sunday and Monday, that this is “a strike of choice” that could have been avoided. And some wondered whether it was primarily a show of force by a strong union president eager to show Emanuel just how badly he miscalculated the union’s power.

Ms. Lewis, for her part, sought to portray the union as being forced into the strike by a bullying mayor and Chicago schools CEO who aren’t listening to teachers on important concerns related to class size, benefits, job security, and even the lack of air conditioning in many buildings.

“This is a difficult decision and one we hoped we could avoid,” Lewis said in a statement Sunday night. “We must do things differently in this city if we are to provide our students with the education they so rightfully deserve.”

Performance-based teacher evaluations have been a contentious issue in many states and districts. Use of student test results to help measure teacher quality was heavily encouraged with the federal Race to the Top Fund, and is one of the fastest-moving and most controversial of current reforms.

In Illinois, a new state law has mandated a teacher-evaluation system which relies in part on student growth on test scores, which alarms teachers unions, who fear that teachers will be fired for factors beyond their control. Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard says that the new evaluation system “was not developed to be a hammer,” but rather to help teachers improve – but that’s not the way many teachers see it. The union claims that the proposed system could result in 6,000 teachers losing their jobs in the first few years of the program – a figure the district vigorously disputes.

Another dispute has to do with job security and teacher “recall” – specifically whether laid-off teachers will have the right to be the first hired back once the city is hiring again.

The city has made some concessions on that issue already, offering to put teachers in a reassigned teacher pool for five months, or giving some teachers recall rights for a year, depending on the reason they were laid off, such as school closings, school turnaround efforts, or other reasons. But the mayor has said he needs to give principals at new schools the chance to hire the teachers they want, not just former CPS teachers who lost their jobs.

“I see this as one local union trying to dig in its heels [against] any major changes,” says Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif., a frequent union critic and advocate of increased accountability for teachers. “My own view is that it’s not in the interest of unions to do this.”

But with the standoff in Chicago just taking shape, it was unclear on Monday who was gaining the upper hand – and in the event the strike goes on for any length of time, Chicagoans may give the blame to the mayor.

“People tend to see teacher strikes more through the lens of their child’s teacher,” says Mr. Knowles of the University of Chicago.

And some observers around the country are wondering whether Emanuel, President Obama's former chief of staff, miscalculated just how far he could push the union.

A state law pushed through the legislature last year required 75 percent agreement by union members to get strike authorization – a bar that almost everyone thought was unattainable. Instead, the CTU got more than 90 percent of its members to authorize a strike in June.

Emanuel also pushed heavily for a longer school day and year (Chicago’s have traditionally been among the shortest in the nation) and angered many teachers over his efforts to push it through without their support, to force teachers to work longer hours without increased pay, and to bypass the union by getting teachers at individual schools to waive the contract.

In the end, an agreement on the longer day was reached – more time was added, but the district is hiring nearly 500 teachers to make up the extra time, and no instructional time is being added to current teachers’ workload – but the process left a bitter taste in many teachers’ mouths.

Still, some of the teachers’ discontent may be less over the specific local Chicago issues and more to do with the broader reform efforts nationwide, which many teachers see as an attack on their profession.

“Teachers have come under assault from every direction over the last several years,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “You have a Democratic administration that doesn’t really do much to defend teachers or teachers’ unions," he adds.

Issues like layoffs, increased class size, limits on collective bargaining in some states, the increased accountability from No Child Left Behind, and even the film, “Won’t Back Down” – aired at the Democratic National Convention last week and viewed by many as anti-teachers union – all have some teachers pushed to the breaking point, Mr. Kahlenberg says.

“Given all the pressures that teachers have been facing from different quarters, it’s not surprising that you’d see teachers saying, ‘Enough,’ ” he adds.

Knowles agrees that Lewis, at the CTU, was likely able to “ tap into a whole vein of discontent among teachers” in getting her authorization vote.

The real implications of the Chicago strike on education reforms nationwide, of course, depend on who “wins.” Whenever an agreement is reached – probably relatively quickly – expect both sides to claim victory.

A few things to watch for:

Does the city cave on the teacher recall issue? It could give some concessions, but if the union actually gets the full recall rights it wants, it would be a big victory for the CTU.

Does the city get the changes it would like on so-called “step and lane” increases? These are salary increases that a teacher gets automatically due to seniority and extra credentials, which the city would like to do away with. Emanuel has already conceded on the merit pay he wanted to implement, and may have to give way here too.

A less-talked about issue, says Knowles, is “bumping rights.” Chicago is one of the few unionized cities where teachers don’t have the right to bump another less senior teacher out of a position at a different school. If the union somehow gets that reinstated – perhaps in exchange for something else – that would be a big win for labor.

“You have traditional organized labor à la Chicago, and a hard-charging reform-minded Democrat [mayor], pro-charter [school], pro-teacher accountability, pro-merit pay, but he has no money,” says Knowles. “I think everyone around the country is interested in" what will happen.

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